Film & TV

Before Ultra: Local Filmmakers Set Out to Document '90s Florida Rave Culture

Who were the pioneers of party in Florida? Two men, David James and Jonathan Vinazza, believe they have an answer — and the video evidence to back it up. The duo's upcoming documentary, The Scene: '90s Florida Rave Culture, is a detailed and sprawling film project focusing on a decade when dance, rave, and techno first took hold of the Sunshine State, many times late into the morning.

"I remember people that actually woke up to go to the rave, like it was their job or something."

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Directed by Vinazza and containing footage shot by James 20-odd years ago, the movie combines remastered video of actual underground parties at rock clubs and warehouse raves alongside modern-day interviews with those who were there. From DJs to scenesters to club promoters, it's an ambitious attempt to wrangle as many experiences and voices as possible to tell this one story. 

During our call, James fires off the names so fast, they bleed into one another: Exotic E, Hybrid, Frankie Bones, R-Fresh. They all appear in the film, and all had some impact on the scene. James seems like a man whose usual speed is go, but when it comes to discussing the old school, you can almost hear his heart quicken. Vinazza practically smiles through the phone, and the two have needed to harvest that energy sifting through hours of video and photo footage that will transport viewers back to the pre-Ultra days.

Originally conceptualized as an examination of South Florida rave culture, it soon became apparent to James and Vinazza (and pointed out by several friends) that ignoring places like Gainesville and Orlando would leave massive holes in their tale. For example, Simon’s in Gainesville and the Edge in Orlando (the sister club to the Edge in Fort Lauderdale, which is now Revolution Live) were premier destinations for not just Florida dance fans but for people from all over the country. This was still the early days of the internet, but chatrooms were already a major tool in organizing last-minute, all-night ragers.

Of course, Miami eventually became a mecca for EDM, and Vinazza credits famous (or infamous) outfits such as Fever Crew. “Fever Crew was a group of kids that threw a bunch of parties in Miami, but they also had a gangsta element to them,” Vinazza says. "Like the guy that started it was a guy named Johnny. He wound up getting murdered outside of a strip club."

But Vinazza somewhat plays down the antics from that time; although they did throw awesome parties and “put Miami on the map,” Fever Crew were also notoriously hard partiers. It got to the point that not only did Johnny Dominguez get killed but cofounder Carlos Perez was Baker Acted by his family, because thanks to an overindulgence of drugs, he became a danger to himself.

It wasn’t always like that, though, and Vinazza is quick to point to positives. “A lot of people that used to be gangster kids, thugs, suddenly are at a party with everyone massaging each other on ecstasy. It was kind of a culture shock for them, but they enjoyed it, and it changed them. A lot of people got better, channeling their aggression through that, rather than gangbanging and shit.”

Those aggressions were channeled into parties that raged until noon, often in different locations, to avoid the police. Eventually, cops started getting smart and began busting kids on their way to the parties. The film looks to present not just an oral history of the EDM-fueled debauchery but also to remind us of what exactly people were getting arrested for: having a damned good time. “It’s funny; I remember people that actually woke up to go to the rave, like it was their job or something," Vinazza laughs. "'Are you going to work?' Nah, they’re going to a rave to get fucked up.”

The film won't shy away from that wild, unregulated lifestyle, says Vinazza. “To be honest with you, there’s a lot of crazy shit that happened. I got girls showing off their titties, I got people all fucked up rolling and shit. I got some of the best music too.”

Vinazza also shares his own memories from a show that was raided and where he was subsequently tossed into a paddy wagon. He tells it off-hand, jokingly, almost like it’s a fond memory. As for the film's intended audience, the filmmakers lay out the welcome mat to the general public.
“I want to say it’s for everyone. It’s part for reminiscing, part nostalgia, part history lesson. We want to put Florida on the map. A lot of big-name DJs came out of the Florida scene. We want to make sure people recognize that. We feel a lot of people just don’t know. Especially now, especially the new kids...We have Ultra, but before Ultra, there was Zen Festival. The first Ultra party was literally the same lineup as Zen the year before.”

Orlando’s Zen Fest is another bygone byproduct of '90s rave culture that seems to flood Vinazza with good vibrations. Started in 1995 by Jason Donovan (interviewed in the movie), Zen Fest regularly sported top tier talent on its lineups such as Crystal Method, Josh Wink, and Rabbit in the Moon. It was also perpetually hounded by authorities, a nearly impossible feat when in 1997 the festival welcome 20,000 ravers.

With Miami's annual Winter Music Conference right around the corner, James and Vinazza are busy contemplating the right time to release the film. Unfortunately, for a movie that’s closing in on two years in the making, the answer isn’t exactly soon. The pair is currently soliciting for more varied footage from different years and venues. This in turn will cost more money to transfer to digital media. That means more time and more money. Vinazza hopes to have it completed by WMC 2017.

Vinazza constantly gets inquiries as to when the finished product will see the light of day. But with something as important to them as this, it’s better to get it right than to get it done fast. Until then, party on. 
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Angel Melendez is an unabashed geek and a massive music nerd who happens to write words (and occasionally take photos) for Miami New Times. A graduate of Florida Atlantic University and an accomplished failure at two other universities, Angel is a lush and an insufferable know-it-all, and has way better taste in music than you. His wealth of useless knowledge concerning bands, film, and Batman is matched only by his embarrassingly large collection of Hawaiian shirts and onesies.
Contact: Angel Melendez